How I escaped reform school

We knew where all the bad kids ended up because our parents drummed it into us.

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I grew up in New Jersey's northeast industrial corridor in the 1960s. Life was rough and tumble, and personal security lay in sticking to one's neighborhood as much as possible. On those occasions when I had to transit foreign turf, the kids residing there would cast cold eyes upon me. Sometimes they would chase me, stopping only when I had achieved the snug harbor of my own block, whereupon me and my friends would cast cold eyes at them.

We weren't bad kids, just mischiefmakers – jumping from garage roof to garage roof, putting firecrackers in Mr. Musante's apples, opening fire hydrants, and climbing the neighbors' trees. The truly bad kids lived in those other neighborhoods, of course. And we all knew where they were going to wind up, because our parents never ceased to drum it into us – reform school.

I recall once being chased home by Johnny Nalbach, who was older than me. When I told my father my tale of woe, he shook his head and firmed his lip. "Well," he said, "don't worry. He's headed for reform school."

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But Nalbach wasn't the only one. Accompanying him would be Freeno, Markowitz, Teduski, Scarmino, and Butch – all known bullies, all – in the opinion of the parents of the block – incorrigible.

The thing, however, was that none of us kids knew where this reform school was located. As such, it took on legendary proportions and became a sort of "middle earth" in our young minds. We conceived of it as big, dark, and looming, with smokestacks that spewed filth from the thrumming machinery run by its cast of unrepentant juvenile delinquents.

When I was 13, my buddy Mike told me that he wasn't going to high school. He said this within earshot of his father, who glanced at his son. "Then I guess you'll end up in reform school," he said. That pronouncement had such weight that not only did Mike go to high school, he made the honor roll and went on to college.

Ironically, it was at just about this time that I began to doubt the existence of reform school. I concluded that it might be the last best tactic parents had to keep their kids in line. I actually voiced my doubt to my father one day while we were driving down the New Jersey Turnpike through that awful corridor of oil refineries, chemical factories, and flaming towers. In response, my father pointed into the distance at a fortresslike compound with an immense, ominous-looking dome. "There," he said. "That's the reform school."

I leaned forward from the back seat and peered out at the bleak, forbidding structure. It was made entirely of stone and looked as if it could withstand a nuclear blast. I swallowed hard. So that was where Nalbach and his gang were headed. I brightened at the thought and took renewed confidence in the wisdom of my parents.

And then, during college, I think, the very term "reform school" evaporated. Maybe it was all part of a burgeoning kinder, gentler approach to curbing reckless behavior in the young. I don't know. But I am left with many questions, among them: Did reform schools ever really reform anybody's bad behavior? Were they as terrible as our parents made them out to be? Did Nalbach ever wind up in reform school, and if so, where is he now and what is he doing?

Recently, I was in Jersey visiting family. As I drove down that familiar stretch of turnpike, I gazed into the distance and, yes, it was still there – enormous, its dome intact, still looking apocalyptic. It was long ago converted into a state penitentiary for adult criminals, but no matter, a chill ran through me – the same chill I felt those long years ago when I hopped Mr. Musante's fence after detonating a firecracker in yet another of his apples. "You're going to the reform school!" he bellowed. That threat must have done the trick, for right then and there I decided to mend my wicked ways.

So far so good.

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